It's no surprise that fruits are good for you, but new research suggests they just might have the potential to save your life. Researchers at Oxford University found that eating as little as one medium-sized apple or a handful of fresh strawberries a day could slash your risk of heart disease by 40 percent.
The researchers tracked about half a million people in China with no previous history of heart disease for seven years. By the study's end, they found the group who ate at least 150 grams of fresh fruit a day had significantly lower blood pressure, less risk of cardiovascular disease, and fewer deaths compared to those who never or rarely ate fruit.
And while the daily fruit eaters saw the most cardiovascular benefit, even the participants who ate fruit just one to three times a week had up to 28 percent lower risk of heart disease than non–fruit eaters. This suggests that the more fruit you eat, the better off you are, says study author Dr. Huaidong Du.
That's because fruits offer a rich variety of heart-protective nutrients like potassium, folate, magnesium, fiber and antioxidants. "These nutrients guard the heart by reducing antioxidant stress, improving blood fats, lowering blood pressure, and increasing insulin sensitivity," says Du.
The U.S. government's dietary guidelines advise men to get two cups of fruit a day (like one small apple and a banana, for example) — a larger daily portion than was studied here. So while more research is needed to confirm this, if you eat the recommended amount, you could potentially decrease your blood pressure and cardiovascular disease risks even more than 40 percent.
But as with any food, it's still possible to eat too much fruit, says Jennifer McDaniel, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Yes, fruit should be part of a healthy diet, but it still contains calories. And if you consume more calories than you need in a day, even those extra calories from fruit could lead to weight gain."
Luckily, Du says it's hard to overdo it with fruit. Because it's so full of fiber, it fills you up fast, so you're not very likely to eat too much. "Furthermore, fresh fruit is a very minor source of fructose in our diet as compared to the added sugars in soft drinks and other processed foods," Du says.
The study didn't dig into what kinds of fruit these people ate, but certain types may have more heart-protective nutrients than others. McDaniel suggests berries, apples and citrus fruits but also mixing it up a little.
"A multicolored fruit bowl equips your body with a nutrient lineup ready to defend your heart," she says. "And at meals, aim to fill half of your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables. This quantity and variety of produce will help safeguard your ticker."